Pakistan’s greatest resource is surely its people. Since I arrived nearly four months ago, I have had the opportunity to speak with people from various backgrounds, and from different regions of the country, economic sectors, and with varied political and social perspectives. I am constantly impressed by the level of talent and ambition I see here, especially among women. Still, women remain underrepresented in many aspects of society and we are all worse off for it. For all of the dynamic women already using their talents to better their country and communities, many more are waiting for their opportunity. As a result, books go unwritten, scientific breakthroughs go undiscovered, and perhaps most disturbing, future leaders’ voices go unheard.
For communities and countries to develop fully, the full participation of women in all aspects of society is key. That’s true in the US, in Pakistan, and everywhere else in the world. When a woman or a girl is held back, her family, community, and country are held back as well from achieving their potential. And while there is no doubt that women worldwide have made great strides toward equality over the past few decades, there is still plenty of room for growth. This year’s theme for International Women’s Day, “Pledge for Parity”, is therefore, fitting.
Education is one of the surest paths to success and social mobility. Yet thousands of girls are still kept out of school in Pakistan. Each empty classroom seat represents untold and untapped potential. Through scholarships, teacher trainings and other education programs, the US is dedicated to helping Pakistan increase girls’ enrolment in schools and improve the quality of education they receive. Through the “Let Girls Learn” initiative, we have committed $70 million to working with the Government of Pakistan to educate and enable more than 200,000 girls across Pakistan.
Education matters beyond the classroom as well. Women are often marginalised from political processes. We support the Gender Equity Program, which provides grants to help women register for Computerised National Identity Cards, which in turn allows them to vote. The program also addresses gender-based violence by educating women about their rights, providing support for women in shelters, and offering opportunities for access to justice. When women are allowed an education, they can reach their full potential and numerous opportunities open up for them, including economic and political opportunities.
To quote President Barak Obama, “Lifting women up, lifts up our economy and lifts up our country.” Increasing women’s access to economic opportunities is a way to empower not only individuals, but communities. One such example is the US-Balochistan Agriculture Project, which helps female entrepreneurs increase their income from wool production through technical training and connecting them to broader markets. Our energy sector internship program addresses both women’s participation in male-dominated fields as well as the challenge of meeting Pakistan’s growing energy needs.
The initiatives I’ve highlighted, specifically address gender inequality. However, “Pledge for Parity” resonates with me because it also suggests small but concrete steps anyone can take their lives to chip away at a problem that often seems daunting. Today, right now, we can all challenge conscious and unconscious bias. It requires no funding or special skill to value women’s and men’s contributions equally. It requires that we see these contributions as deserving of respect regardless of whether or not they are done in the home or are money-making. Certainly, this is easier said than done, but nothing worthwhile is ever easy.
Any movement that demands a close look at the status quo takes patience and perseverance. Pakistani activist Khalida Brohi started her journey toward enablement at a young age, when she became the first girl in her Balochistan village to attend school. When a close friend was murdered in a so-called honour killing, the teenaged Brohi rushed to tackle the issue with passion and conviction. Yet she has spoken frankly about why her initial tactics fell on deaf ears and even alienated the community she sought to help. Rather than feel defeated, she asked for input and collaboration and said, “What can we do together?”. Ending the gender gap is a work-in-progress everywhere and a task we must take up together. And we must persevere.
The US is committed to the greater inclusion and enablement of women at home and abroad. I am proud of the work we have done and continue to do with the Government of Pakistan and with civil society organisations, to advance the role of women. My personal ‘Pledge for Parity’ is a commitment to helping women and girls achieve their ambitions and engaging with male leaders to help support these efforts. Let’s work together to ensure we are achieving our full potential by allowing women to achieve theirs.
Note: The following op-ed was published in English in The Express Tribune on March 7, 2016.